I remember the early days, staring at a paper Twin Cities sectional, dreaming about places I still might go.
Leave Fargo, I thought. Leave the Jet Center and head vaguely southeast. I didn’t know how to cross the Canadian border to the north, and I had friends in Alexandria, Minneapolis and Chicago, so I put my finger on the map and traced the light blue line, the airway heading 116 degrees away from town, imagining the adventure of some future flight. Where would I land for fuel? How would I get through the big city traffic? Where was my E6B?
Then, I stopped. Still under the TRSA, I saw two crossed arrows on the air route. Just a waypoint, I knew. But then I saw the name. WIRDE. That’s weird, I thought, smiling.
I traced the line just a small bit farther and then I laughed out loud.
In my mind, the conversation couldn’t have been more clear.
ATC: Cessna five three two nine bravo, proceed to PANIC.
29B: Do what?
ATC: Depart WIRDE and proceed to PANIC. Hold there, at or below three thousand.
Someone, I thought. Someone leaning over an illuminated map in a darkened room, the someone responsible for naming things on maps, was having way too much fun.
There are waypoint names at every, well, waypoint. Many of them are on sectionals. A great many more are on approach plates. Each of them is five letters long. Put them in your iPad or Garmin, and presto, there you are. According to a spokesperson for the FAA Office of Communications, the names often have some connection to local culture or history. Requests to establish fixes and names are sent to the FAA’s Aeronautical Information Services, and there’s a vetting process to make sure the names aren’t inappropriate. After that, it seems, anything goes.
Some waypoint names are famous, a part of flying lore. Outside Orlando, you can fly to BUGGZ, GOOFY, MINEE and PIGLT. At Wichita, you can FOLOW YELOO BBRIK RROAD. There are the somber references. Outside Washington National, the charts say WEEE WLLL NEVVR FORGT SEP11. And there are the profoundly silly ones, too. Outside Portsmouth, New Hampshire, you can enter a flight plan that says ITAWT ITAWA PUDYE TTATT IDEED.
Las Vegas hosts LUCKY. It also gets FUZZY and POKRR and CHIPZ.
If you’re offshore, skimming the North Atlantic on your way into New York, you get WAVEY.
Some are random. Columbus, Ohio, gets PIZZA. There’s a BUICK north of Seattle and a CHEVY east of Dallas. There’s a KMART west of Dallas, as well.
I don’t know who she was, but there’s a BERYL in the Escalante Desert. ALICE is outside Tuscaloosa. SUSAN is north and east of Pensacola. There’s a WOMAN in New York.
There are four SCOTTs, but none of them is in the U.S. There are five DAVIDs.
There’s no CRASH (thank heavens). No STALL. But there are four SANTAs. One in the Pacific south of Hawai’i. One in Spain. One in Mexico, and one in Guatemala.
In Minnesota, where Norwegian culture is large, we have Ole and Lena jokes (with a bit of Sven thrown in when the joke needs a third). So, of course, there are waypoints named OLLEE and LEENA. For baseball fans, we have KBREW (named after the great Twins slugger Harmon Killebrew), too.
There’s a STORM in Oregon, BARBQ outside Kansas City and TNDRA outside Green Bay. BEARS is near Soldier Field.
ATC: Two nine bravo, after you see CHEVY, proceed to KMART then pick up BERYL. After that, FUZZY, CHIPS and POKRR.
Yes, I think, someone has to propose a waypoint name. Someone has to think of a five-letter word that, if at all possible, connects to the landscape or culture below. A committee has to consider, debate and finally approve that name. It has to be right, or at least not wrong.
Sure, not all of them are FUNNY. Some are simply VERRY CLEVR. Some are JUSTT a LITLE SILLY. But they’re also entertaining, enlightening, a moment of fun in the sky.
Imagine laughter, or at least a CHUKL, in the cockpit as we FLYBY. Perhaps we SMILE as we wonder who BERYL may have been. It’s possible that someone must REALLY MISSS her.
W. Scott Olsen is a professor of English at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He holds the world and national records for the fastest flight across North Dakota in a Cessna 152. Scott’s books include “Hard Air,” “Never Land” and “Prairie Sky.”